Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali sees hope for the Anglican Communion

GAFCON-II is the saving grace of a conflicted communion

By Mary Ann Mueller in Belleville, Illinois
Special Correspondent
www.virtueonline.org

OUR LADY OF THE SNOWS, Illinois – I had always told David Virtue that if Church of England Bishop Michael Nazir-Ail ever came to the Lone Star State, I wanted to cover the event. Over the years, I developed a great admiration for the Pakistani-born Anglican bishop. He is brilliant and has such a powerful command of whatever subject he is talking about that he does not need Note One to refer to. Occasionally, he will put a watch on the podium as he is speaking to keep track of time.

So I was so surprised when Forward in Faith-North America (FiF-NA) contacted me to come to Illinois last week and cover the Annual Assembly. I have done media for FiF-NA twice before, both times before I hooked up with Virtueonline. I looked forward to meeting familiar faces – ACNA Bishop William Wantland, my former bishop when I was editor at a newspaper in western Wisconsin; Forward in Faith President ACNA Bishop Keith Ackerman, whom I originally met at my first FiF-NA event; Brother Kirk Gerber, a Benedictine monk from Chicago; Canon Ed den Blaawen from the ACNA Diocese of Quincy; and Julia Smead, the one-person wizard behind the scenes at the FiF-NA office in Bedford, Texas.

In the nearly five years I have worked with Virtueonline I have become familiar with new names. Now I would have the opportunity to put an unfamiliar face to a familiar name including: Fr. James Guill (St. Andrew’s in Nashville, Tenn.); ACNA Bishop William Ilgenfritz (Missionary Diocese of All Saints); Fr. Geoffrey Boland (St. Nicholas in Haines City, Fla.); ACNA Bishop Eric Menees (Anglican Diocese of san Joaquin); Anglican Church in America Bishop Stephen Strawn (Diocese of the Missouri Valley); and Anglican Province in American Presiding Archbishop Walter Grundorf (Oviedo, Fla).

Some familiar faces who had been a part of earlier Forward in Faith events were missing: retired Reformed Episcopal Bishop Richard Boyce (Diocese of the West); Sr. Mary Charles (All Saints Sisters of the Poor); Br. Ned (Br. Kirk’s natural blood brother who lives in Australia); and Fr. Keith Acker (Church of the Blessed Trinity in Alpine, Calif.); as well as and others. They were missed.

Journalistically, the pièce de résistance for me was meeting Bishop Nazir-Ali. As a journalist, I have covered popes and presidents, as well as saints and sinners, but I never imagined I would ever have the opportunity to come into his presence. I was thrilled that the opportunity presented itself and was further astonished that Forward in Faith asked me to conduct a one-on-one sit-down interview with the visiting British bishop for its Forward in Christ publication.

Bishop Nazir-Ali is a consummate gentleman; he is refined and cultured, highly educated and exceedingly articulate. We sat down in an empty meeting room as others left following the first day of activities.

I queried him about his name Nazir-Ali, noting that it had an Islamic connotation.

“People who read the Bible should know, because it comes from the same root as the word Nazirite, which means someone who has dedicated themselves,” Bishop Nazir-Ali explained. “But, I come from a Sha’a Muslim family and necessarily the word means a family or people who have dedicated themselves to Ali (Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib) who was the nephew and the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.”

As a world-class speaker, Bishop Nazir-Ali crisscrosses the globe teaching and preaching. As a result of his many travels, he has a permanent case of jetlag with last week being no exception. However, he is looking forward to GAFCON-II which is to meet in late October in Nairobi, Kenya, where his passport will receive yet another stamp. The good bishop was very impressed with the original 2008 GAFCON that brought together Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Charismatics who worshipped together, studied the Bible together, and praised God together with one voice.

“Why can’t the Anglican Communion as a whole be like this?” he asked.

He is convinced that GAFCON is the way forward in Anglicanism. He feels that as more people participate in the GAFCON experience, Anglicans will be imprinted by GAFCON and the Anglican Communion will be reshaped by the GAFCON experience leading to new ways of gathering, new ways of consulting, and new ways deciding things together as a church and as a communion of churches.

“I think gatherings like GAFCON are so important because that is where you meet global Anglicanism and therefore the future,” he said. “So let us continue to celebrate the Christian Faith as Anglicans have received it and let us pray that GAFCON-II will be as impressive as GACFON-I was.”

The bishop spoke on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the Lambeth Conference and four Instruments of Unity to ARCIC and the Mission of the Church to what it means to be “The Church” today. He also expressed his disdain at how The Episcopal Church has deposed so many fine clergy just for being loyal to the Gospel.

“As a Church of England bishop, what do you think about the heavy-handed methods The Episcopal Church uses in dealing with clergy who honestly are attempting to be faithful to their vows of ordination and to the Word and Sacraments?”

In reply Bishop Nazir-Ali’s bronze face darkened and the twinkle in his eye turned into a flash of frustration as his carefully modulated voice slightly deepened while his diction became more pronounced.

“I think it is absolutely scandalous,” he said with measured words, “that people like +Mark Lawrence – who is one of the finest bishops that I have even known and who upholds Catholic truth and Christian teaching and the Gospel in everything that he does – should be deposed for doing so, and not for any other reason.

“I mean, this is a topsy-turvy world that we are looking at,” he continued, “where people are being deposed for being Biblical, for being creedal, for being Catholic by others who, if you read what they write or say, clearly seem to be heretical in their exegesis of the Bible, their doctrine of the Church, and in what they believe about the Person and work of Jesus Christ and so on.”

The Church of England bishop said that he and others had no problem whatsoever in recognizing and continuing to support Bishop Lawrence, Bishop Jack Iker, and Archbishop Robert Duncan and their clergy who have been dismissed by The Episcopal Church for their traditional and orthodox Anglican faith.

As a visiting bishop in the colonial-based Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, Bishop Nazir-Ali is helping keep Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese connected to the wider Anglican world now that the South Carolina bishop has been defrocked and his diocese has seceded from The Episcopal Church in their struggle to maintain Anglican orthodoxy.

“I have also helped the Diocese, in a small way, in its relationships with the rest of the Anglican Communion by giving them some kind of theological grounding in how to think of themselves for the future,” Bishop Nazir-Ali explained.

He clarified that it is inherent upon traditional Biblically-grounded Anglican Provinces, which have remained faithful to the Anglican formularies and have maintained Catholic faith and order, to make sure that the Catholic faith is not wiped from the Anglican map in North America and Britain. That is why he and others have reached out to like-minded traditional and orthodox Anglicans in the United States. As his adopted land becomes more sectarian, he is also concerned that Britain will follow in the same spiritually decaying footsteps as North America.

Bishop Nazir-Ali, whose name has bubbled up in the past as a possible candidate for the Archbishop of Canterbury, says that Justine Welby has an impossible task ahead of him as the 105th holder of the title. As such the new Archbishop of Canterbury will face enormous challenges and an unenviable task, which is an impossible job for anyone.

“I think that we should pray that God will bless him in his work and in his ministry,” he said. “I think that the tensions of being the Archbishop of Canterbury between the Church of England, the State, and the Anglican Communion are probably not ones that can be resolved.”

The Church of England bishop sees the Anglican Ordinariates as a two-edged sword. First, he notes that finally at the highest level, the Church of Rome has recognized the validity of the Anglican Patrimony and a married priesthood in the Western or Latin Rite. He is very well versed in the Vatican documents that outline the Ordinariates and how they will be formed and operated. He has clearly read and thoroughly digested the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus and its Complementary Norms and has given them much measured thought.

“That is a major advance; there is no going back on that now,” he said adding that it was a good thing for Pope Benedict XVI to do. However, he is concerned about the Roman Catholic nature of the Ordinariates, how they will eventually play out in time and that there are some built-in shortcomings. He named three.

“First of all, it is quite strange that one ‘episcopal church’ to provide for another ‘episcopal church’ a system which has no bishops in it – a presbyterian provision – because the ordinary is to be a presbyter (priest),” he explained that this could eventually lead to the Latinization of the Ordinariates as they need to turn to the local Catholic diocesan bishop for Apostolic Sacramental care for their clerical ordinations.

He also feels that with Ordinariate clergy being solely trained and spiritually formed at major Catholic seminaries would lead to even more creeping Latinization as the Anglicans are further distanced from their spiritual traditions and Anglican roots.

“What you need is free-standing colleges that would promote the Anglican-Catholic way of doing things in its integrity,” the CofE bishop explained.

Finally, he feels that the Ordinariates’ married priesthood provision would eventually dry up. “I think there has to be an explicit recognition (of a married priesthood) because Anglicans have found married priests valuable for the Mission of the Church, just as they have found celibate priests valuable for the Mission of the Church.

“There are some problems in the Ordinariates, he continued, “but there are also some positive things.”

The English bishop feels that Forward in Faith has a continuing significant role in Anglicanism, especially in the industrialized Provinces, to help ensure that the importance of Anglican catholicity is not lost and to help Anglicans hold to the fullness of Catholic faith.

He calls on Forward in Faith to be “the impetus in the drive for catholicity which is intrinsic to Anglicans.”

“Anglicanism has a tension between fragmentation on the one hand and on the other an impetus towards greater catholicity,” he explained. “So I think that is the kind of vocation that Forward in Faith can have to remind Anglicans all the time, even orthodox Anglicans, that their vocation is to greater catholicity.”

Bishop Nazir-Ali feels there is hope for the Anglican Communion because the majority of Anglicans are maintaining the “Faith once delivered to the Saints.”

“The vast majority of Anglicans in the world are orthodox. We mustn’t forget this,” he said. “The revisionists are really quite a few in number. They may be very powerful, they make the headlines – at least in the West – but they are not the majority by any manner of means. The future lies in the agreement of a common faith which would give us a common mission.”

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline.

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